Monday, 28 June 2010

Trust me, I'm a doctor

This recent illness of mine provides a nice opportunity to discuss health and medicine here in the UK. As everyone probably knows, the British government provides health care for all its citizens and residents and, from what I understand, for pretty much anyone who wanders in off the street needing some medical assistance. This is terrific, since, with the exception of a brief period between my 25th birthday and the start of my doctoral degree, when I became the "beneficiary" of the student insurance offered by the College of William and Mary, I was about to find myself without insurance in the US for the first time in my life. Thus, it is handy to arrive in a country where I do not have to worry about finding an insurance provider and choosing a plan that is both affordable and comprehensive.

It is also handy to arrive in a country where both medical coverage and treatment are reliable. The only reliable thing about my W&M insurance was that my prescriptions were free as long as I had them filled at the College's pharmacy. However, the company was quite stingy about paying for any medical treatment requiring a specialist outside the campus medical center (which was pretty much any medical treatment beyond, say, application of a band-aid or injection of a vaccine); on many occasions, I had to re-submit claims and provide supplementary documentation in order to prove that I was entitled to certain types of coverage or reimbursements. With my insurance company, as with many (or most) other insurance company in the US, I felt relatively secure that I would eventually receive financial assistance with medical bills, but I also felt assured that the company would make it as difficult as humanly possible for me to get that assistance. It seems unfair that anyone should have to live with this constant worry of losing large sums of money because he/she happens to be infected with a virus or trip and break an arm, etc.

This kind of fear must be particularly troubling to people with severe, debilitating, and/or chronic illness. I had some experience with this after I began having back problems a few years ago, and because of my lifelong battle with migraines. Recurring problems like this often require multiple trips to the doctor, sometimes in close succession, and often necessitate very expensive procedures (CAT scans and MRIs are unbelievably costly; even a simple X-ray can cost multiple hundreds of dollars). One thing I really admire about places that have nationalized health service is that they eliminate the fear associated with wondering however on earth you—or your family—will pay for medical care if you should require it. From my perspective in the US, the UK system seemed quite a bit more civilized, and I was intrigued to experience it first-hand, especially after it was mentioned so frequently during the health care debates of the recent US elections.

Despite the fact that a British hospital/doctor will treat foreigners in cases of emergency, the proper course of action is to procure a national insurance number, which is kind of like the British version of a social security number. Anyone who works or lives in the UK is entitled to a national insurance number, from what I can tell, and because I do both, that was the first step in my process to go to a doctor here. I neglected to do this for quite a long time because I was worried that it was going to be confusing and difficult, and I was still tired from having to fill out all the visa paperwork 5 months ago. When I finally did stir myself into action, it turned out to be ridiculously easy. I called the National Insurance hotline and gave them my address. They sent me a form where I filled in my basic information (name, address, phone number). Although I am technically self-employed and therefore could have been asked to fill out an extra couple pages, I also hold a spousal visa, and so the lady from the hotline center had marked through these pages, cutting down the amount of work I needed to do. I supplied a copy of my passport/visa, and a piece of mail to show that I really do live at my address, and that was it. It was simpler and less time-consuming than getting a new driver's license when I moved back to OH from VA, and.

Often, you are required to go in for an "Evidence of Identity" interview after submitting your national insurance paperwork, so I was expecting to have to make an appointment at the local branch office in Truro. I assumed that this would require a couple weeks of waiting for an open slot, plus the 30 minute train ride in either direction, plus a half hour of waiting for the interview and then another hour or so for the interview itself...but, about a week after I sent off my application, I received my national insurance number in the mail, no questions asked. Can you imagine that happening in the US?

The next step was to find a general practitioner (GP). In some ways, the UK system is similar to the system at W&M--you go to a GP and tell them what's wrong with you, and if they can't fix it, they send you to a specialist. This can require longer waiting periods than we are used to in the US, but the worst that will happen is that you will be inconvenienced, as opposed to endangered. For instance, I have a friend who recently had a hernia operation, and she had to wait a couple months after her diagnosis before she underwent the procedure. However, if she'd had a more immediate problem, such as appendicitis, she'd have been treated immediately. The only problem with GPs is that they can be overwhelmed with patients, and therefore not all GPs are willing to take on new patients at any given time. I am having this issue with a dentist right now--I'd like to go where my husband goes, but since they are chocked full of patients, I have to wait a couple of weeks until the college kids go home before the office will book me in (I'm just as happy to wait--I hate going to the dentist).

Much to my surprise, getting in to see a GP was as easy as getting the insurance number. All I had to do was go in and fill out some forms, and then I could make my first appointment:

(The Falmouth Health Centre--very unimposing.)

After my previous experiences with official documents and other important transitions between the US and UK, I assumed I would need a variety of paperwork in order to facilitate this process. I packed my passport/visa, my driver’s license, my wedding certificate, and the official letter containing my national insurance number. Imagine my surprise when all I needed to produce was my photo ID, which is something they request of all patients. My foreign accent didn’t cause anyone to take pause, and nobody asked for any evidence that I was a resident.

While filling out the forms, I was a bit confused by the section requesting my NHS number, which, I thought for a heart-thumping moment, was something I needed to have procured already but hadn’t. I went to ask the receptionist about this and she looked at me like I was a total idiot; this was particularly embarrassing because she was about 18 and had a look of condescension that could wither even the most confident of individuals. I gave her my typical excuse, which is that “We don’t have this stuff where I come from.” People here seem to love it when I say that, which I do often—when figuring out seats on trains, when using credit card machines, when ordering food in restaurants. I say it even when it’s not entirely true, because a) Brits love self-deprecation, and b) Brits love feeling superior to Americans. It really does work, too—by the time I left the office, the sulky receptionist was even smiling at me. As it turns out, the NHS number is something you get after your first visit to an NHS-affiliated clinic; after all that agonizing over getting the national insurance number before going to see the doctor, I didn’t even need to use it anywhere. I think officials just like giving citizens as many numbers as possible to remember.

My most immediate medical concern was getting myself some migraine medication, and the health center was able to schedule me in for an appointment within a couple weeks. When I reported back, I was delighted to find that the check-in process was very high-tech. You walk up to a computer near the receptionist’s desk, type in your birthday and your name, and it finds you in the system. Within five minutes of checking in, I was called to the back. I don’t think I have ever spent so little time in a waiting room in my life, and it was great.

The doctor to whom I have been assigned appeared to be quite a shy person, which must be difficult in the medical profession—how do you spend your life in a career that mainly consists of talking to people, if you feel uncomfortable talking to people?

(Dr. James. According to his online staff profile, he is an avid surfer and is interested in increasing the use of technology in medicine. I would never have guessed the former, but the latter, for reasons you will soon discover, does not surprise me.)

One of the most frustrating things about having a chronic condition is that you have to discuss it with every new doctor you go to, and every doctor doubts the diagnosis of all other doctors that preceded him/her. So, for about the tenth time in my life, I had to describe my migraines—when I started getting them, how often I get them, what they are like, what triggers them, what medicines I’ve taken for them, blah, blah, blah. This is such a boring thing that I have to resist the urge to make up symptoms just for my own amusement. The doctor agreed with me that I do suffer from migraines and that my former doctors haven’t been wrong for the past 17 years, and then asked what kind of medication I normally take.

Now, this is the point at which this story becomes a bit of a tragedy, and that is because of the way the NHS works. Because the NHS covers pretty much everyone, pretty much without question, it spends a lot of money on patients. One way to make sure that it doesn’t spend more money than it has to is to put pressure on doctors to prescribe only generic and/or older drugs, which are cheaper. You can have name-brand, newer, and more expensive drugs, but the doctors need to be able to show that there is good reason for this. There actually are “prescription police” at the NHS, as Dr. James described them, who look through the paperwork to make sure that nobody is needlessly prescribing expensive drugs. I understand the logic of this, and I sympathize, but I’m also a bit put-out. This is because, of the dozen migraine prescriptions that I have tried, the one that works best for me, and without the fewest side effects, is a new-ish, name-brand drug. That means I can’t have it—at least, not until I try another one and say that it doesn’t work, and then maybe try yet another one again, and say that it doesn’t work. I even asked whether I can accept responsibility for paying the full cost of the drug myself, and I was told that isn’t an option. Sometimes I miss the fiendishly capitalistic US.

What’s really amazing is the cost of these drugs. In the US, some of my migraine prescriptions cost over $200 per box of 6 pills—that’s about $33 per pill—before insurance. Even when I was only responsible for the co-pay, I could still be charged $25 each time I had my prescription filled. Here, the entire box costs about that much. Unless you belong to certain demographic groups (e.g., veterans, students, etc., who get prescriptions filled for free), you do have to pay a small fee at the pharmacy (where the person who fills your prescription is called the “chemist,” rather than the “pharmacist”). In my case I had to pay £14.40 for a prescription that I know will not work, and, further, that I know will give me awful side effects that are even more unpleasant than the headache itself. I know this because I have already tried this medication in the US, but the NHS setup is forcing me to try it again here. Actually, what I will probably do is keep the pills in a drawer somewhere for when I’m truly desperate and out of other options, but tell the doctor that I used them all and that they didn’t work. In other words, I’ll lie until I get what I want. The really sad thing about this is that the box of drugs I normally take only costs £35, and by the time I finally get around to getting that prescription, I’ll have wasted that much money on something ineffective.

Still, imperfect as the system may be, it’s preferable to the one in the US (or, at least, the one that was in place when I left). Everyone here gets the coverage and drugs they need, and everything (at least in the clinic I visited) is digitized so that all my records will be accessible in electronic form to whomever may need them. The drug database that my doctor consulted was also electronic, which I appreciated. The last time I went to a doctor about migraines, he leafed through a pharmaceuticals book that looked as though it had been published in 1950, and I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a few newer prescriptions that weren’t listed in its pages (in fact, the doctor did prescribe me something so out of date that the pharmacist came out and had a whispered conversation with me about my physician clearly had no idea what he was doing). The electronic list made me feel quite a bit more confident that all the options were being considered.

On my way out of the clinic, I stopped by the receptionist’s desk to double-check the timing of my next appointment, which was my “new patient physical.” I found it a little odd that they insisted on a new patient physical (as opposed to just having me transfer my records from the US), but that they didn’t care if it came after my first visit to the doctor, when you would think that some of the basic clinical information might come in handy. As I was turning away to leave, the receptionist asked whether I’d been given a sample jar when I first made the appointment. Um, no. For some reason, the new patient physical requires a urinalysis, which I thought was pretty odd—I can’t even remember the last time I had to give a urine sample, especially in the absence of any symptoms that indicated one was necessary. I guess they are just very thorough here. I’m not sure whether I should be pleased with that, or whether I should start worrying about what this new patient physical is going to entail. I guess I’ll find out next week, when I show up for my appointment!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 3: Feeling better

When I visited Edinburgh the first time, one of the things I didn't do was take in the art at the National Gallery, so this was the first place I went after checking out of the Balmoral on my third, and final, day in Edinburgh. I was feeling remarkably better, but still a bit under the weather, so the museum offered a nice, low-key way to pass the next couple of hours.

I try very hard to appreciate art, and so I schedule museum stops whenever I am in places with extensive and/or important collections. It is not exactly accurate to say that I don't enjoy or understand art, but it's not quite accurate to say that I like viewing it, either. I'm impressed by the fact that anyone can create realistic-looking representations of objects, since that is a skill I lack but have always wanted. I love wood carvings and embroidery, photography, music, ancient artifacts, anything with nature (particularly bird) imagery, and the disturbingly morbid religious iconography from that era when everyone is painted with a gray-green skin tone that makes them look several days dead (ca. 15th century). I truly dislike modern art, I don't like scenes that are posed, I hate melodrama, and I don't understand the point of neo-classicism (Greek columns are SO last millenium!). Unfortunately, in most museum collections, the things that I do like are usually vastly outnumbered by the things I don't like, and I wander from room to room attempting, but failing, to connect with any of the pieces.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of admitting that I didn't much enjoy the offerings at the National Gallery. However, the museum did have two things going for it: First, it was free, as are all the state-run museums in Britain, and I think that is pretty awesome. Second, it gave me a chance to play Caitlin's Museum Game, wherein I have to locate at least one piece of art that I find intriguing for some reason or another, and then go learn more about it. That is how I came to find myself reading up on the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and his painting, Virgin and Child:

(Virgin and Child, ca. 1490, by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage)

This is one of those paintings you really need to see up close, because that is the only way to fully appreciate the vines and grasses and ivy and leaves that are swirling all over the place at the Virgin's feet. Out of that whole picture, the foliage at the bottom really is the thing you notice most--hence the name of the artist. The name, "Master of the Embroidered Foliage" (MEF), either applies to a single individual or a group of individuals who were taught in the same school, in Brussels and southern Holland (in other words, the artist was Flemish) during the late 15th century. According to the sign next to the painting, MEF was highly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes. That means absolutely nothing to me, but I include it for the sake of those individuals who are better versed in art history than I (which wouldn't be hard).

Over the years, I have noticed that I often quite like the paintings of Flemish artists, which is interesting since I didn't even know what "Flemish" meant for the first two-thirds years of my life. Flemish paintings always seem very honest, with clean, crisp lines and detailed backgrounds, and the colors are often rich but muted, with kind of a Gothic or melancholy/somber air. I would definitely hang one of these in my house (if I were filthy rich and could afford one, that is).

Virgin and Child shares something in common with the other piece that I most liked at the museum, which was a triptych called Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, by Gerard David:

(Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, ca. 1500-1520, by Gerard David)

This was originally part of an altarpiece, the rest of which is in my home state of Ohio (Toledo Museum--how weird!) and Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art). Here we have a nice example of that dead-looking skin tone, which utterly fascinates me; the artist clearly had access to pink and red paint, and he didn't think to splash some of that across the cheeks of these people in order to make them look a bit more lively? The thing that I was particularly taken with in this series is the baby Saint Nicholas on the far left; he has just been born and is thanking God for his safe delivery. Throughout the museum, I viewed many images of prematurely adult-shaped babies, as was the style in many religious pictures. This one was particularly extreme, because the baby is a newborn, and is not only about twice as large as he should be, but also is skinny and mobile and able to hold his head up straight. It is creepy. In the middle image, St. Nick (who is, by the way, the same St. Nick who became known as Father Christmas) is leaving money for three orphaned girls so they will have dowries and therefore will not need to turn to prostitution for their livelihoods. At the far right, he is shown reanimating three young boys who were killed during a famine by their own townspeople, who had then placed the boys' bodies in a vat for brining in preparation for cannibalism. Fun stuff--exactly the sort of motivational and inspiring imagery I would like to be presented with at mass every Sunday morning.

After getting my fill of art education for the day, I decided to head back to the other museum across town, in order to revisit the Lewis chessmen. My husband is not exactly a fan of museums and our previous trip through the Lewis exhibit was a bit rushed, so I wanted to go back through at a slower pace and examine the pieces in more detail. This turned out to be an excellent idea, because, as I strolled through the chessman-specific shop at the entryway to the gallery, what should I spy but a hnefatafl set on sale? Of course, I purchased it immediately; now all I have to do is find someone who is willing to sit down and learn how to play a centuries-old Viking strategy game with me (any takers?!). In any case, it was interesting to read about the Lewis pieces in more detail, though really there isn't that much known about them. I also snapped a few photographs, most of which were pretty terrible. Fortunately, a couple came out all right:

(Examples of chessmen used in the Viking era. )

The piece on the far right is incomplete, but is thought to be the early stages of a knight. Those heads you see are horses, though I think they look very much like sheep. In fact, given the color and shape of the stone, plus the pock-marks that had begun to appear as the ivory aged, I found the overall effect to be very wool-like, and I would like to think that the carver was trying to create an image of Siamese sheep (or possibly two friendly sheep snuggling very closely).

The piece on the far left is one of the most detailed sculptures in the whole collection; the bit facing forward in the above picture is actually just the side, with the front facing off to the left:

(I am not exactly sure what position this piece was used for, but he looks very much like a king to me.)

I can't imagine being able to create such a thing, but I particularly can't imagine a) the process of harvesting a walrus tusk wide enough to make a piece this large, b) sculpting something with this level of detail, and c) doing all of it in the 13th century, when they didn't exactly have the most advanced tools imaginable.

While strolling through the rest of the museum, I passed a display of some items that had been found at a Viking burial site in Ballindry. Two of the graves were close together and appeared to be a well-to-do husband and wife. Here is what the woman had been buried with:

(Items left in the grave of a Viking woman in northern Scotland. Her husband was buried with armor, weaponry, and tack.)

The pieces at the upper left are jewelry, and the pieces at the bottom right are probably decorations from a wooden box. The items in the middle include a ladle (top), a linen smoother (the thing that looks like a paperweight), needles/needle case (left), and heckles for cloth-making (the bits at the bottom that look a bit decomposed). Now, I am sure that this woman took a great deal of pride in being able to keep her family clothed in neatly-pressed, beautifully-embroidered homemade fabric, but do you really think that she envisioned spending her afterlife ironing and sewing and sitting at a loom...for eternity? If anyone even thinks of placing anything related to a household chore in my grave, I will come back and haunt them until they remove it. I would, however, be quite happy with the jewelry.

My next port of call was the museum cafe, where I had a nice cup of tea after purchasing a bit of light reading to keep me company:

(Reading about tea while drinking...tea. I spy a theme.)

By this point, it wasn't long until I needed to meet up with my husband to head to the airport, but I thought I'd pop in to the mall and have a look around a few shops in order to confirm that there really are no articles of clothing in Britain that are my size. I then headed back to the Balmoral, where I took a quick trip to the lobby toilet. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door and found this:

(Good Lord, that is a lot of unnecessary floral print.)

In case you were curious, this is what it looks like up close:

(I am informed by a very reliable source that the men's restroom is not similarly decorated.)

The only other interesting event of the day was our discovery, upon reaching the airport, that our flight had been delayed by 40 minutes because a medical emergency had occurred on the plane en route to Edinburgh. Of course, we felt bad for whomever suffered the medical emergency, but we also felt bad for ourselves for having to wait longer in the airport and then for having to drive 1.5 hours home at 11:30 PM. Luckily, the waiting area had two coin-operated massage chairs, one of which was broken and therefore continually offered free neck rubs.

To make matters even better, someone left behind a copy of a celebrity gossip magazine, Closer, which I immediately grabbed and began perusing. In the US, I will occasionally look at Us or People, which offer reviews on movies and TV shows, interviews, and other occasionally redeeming elements of more or less real journalism. Closer, on the other hand, has absolutely no redeeming qualities, and is purely a collection of gossip and conjecture; it is a glossy, paginated, portable version of high school:

(I do not think I will be subscribing to this publication, enlightening though it was.)

This type of publication appears to be extremely popular here, as evidenced by the amazing variety of such magazines available, and the frequency with which I see them ported about by all the fashionable young ladies. Thanks to Closer, I learned that footballer Peter Crouch, forward for the Tottenham Hotspurs (another of my favorite players) is engaged to a model who once packed two left shoes for him when helping him prepare for an away game, thus forcing him to borrow a pair of shoes from the lost and found. Isn't that a delightful and edifying tidbit that changes your world view, as all good journalism should? I can't wait to pull out that factoid when I am next sitting around watching football with the guys. I'm sure they'll enjoy it as much as I did.

You can imagine how excited we were to discover that Cornwall was going through the same warm spell as Edinburgh, and that we did not even need our jackets while walking to the car. In fact, the sun and heat continue, and London is supposed to be 30 degrees (Celsius) over the next few days. That sounds very conducive to a pleasant trip up to visit the Royal Society and celebrate my husband's birthday this week...

Friday, 25 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 2: Ugh

In case you wondered why this blog was named “The Pocahontas Files,” let me explain. As I described in her brief bio at the top of the main page, Pocahontas died of a mysterious illness after living in England for about a year. There have been several guesses as to the exact nature of her ailment (smallpox, pneumonia, TB), but the important detail is that her immune system was not ready for New World threats, causing her to succumb while everyone around her remained healthy. I sympathize with poor Pocahontas, because I, too, seem to get sick from everything here in the UK. This is made even worse by the fact that my husband gets sick from almost nothing; he is a great carrier of vectors but not a sufferer, so I am not even aware that I am in danger until I wake up with a stuffy nose or a fever or nausea or whatever other fun symptoms get thrown my way. I have already vomited in our apartment more than in either of my last two apartments combined. I have had two of the worst colds of my entire life; if there were a Guinness World Record for tissue and/or cold medicine use, I surely would be a contender. I also happen to have a bit of Native American ancestry, so between my health, my location (coming from Pocahontas’ hometown, moving to England), and my heritage, I quickly earned the nickname of “Pocahontas.”

I mention this now because I seem to have caught a 24-hour stomach flu for the second time this year. My first evening in Edinburgh was so lovely, and I was so excited about heading out the next day to walk to the top of Arthur’s Seat, or perhaps looking at the Dutch landscapes at the Queen’s Gallery, or any number of other entertaining diversions, but instead I spent the entire day in our hotel room, barely able to crawl out of bed. As my husband pointed out, at least it was a nice hotel room to get stuck in, and, thankfully, they had room service. This was a life-saver, because I did not realize how ill I was until my husband had already left for his conference; not only could I not make it to a store to buy food, I didn’t have anyone to send in my place.

Room service always seems like such a fun thing, but the two times I have indulged, it has been in very dire circumstances. The first was in New Orleans, when I went for an American Ornithologists’ Union conference as an undergraduate. I flew in just as a major hurricane was making its way up the coast, and as everyone now knows, New Orleans is not a city built to withstand hurricanes. When I headed out for dinner, it was pouring rain and all the streets were beginning to fill up with water because the storm drains were full. I rolled up my jeans since the water was up to my ankles, and trudged around trying to find a restaurant –any restaurant would do—that was open. Unfortunately, nothing was, so I eventually had to squelch back to the hotel and head to my room to dry off. While contemplating what I could eat from the vending machine, my eye fell on the room service menu, and I knew my problems were solved. The food, of course, was hideously expensive, but I ordered the decently-priced appetizer sampler because it had, among other things, hummus, which I had just recently started eating for the first time. It also had pâté, which I accidentally ate before realizing what it was (I’m rather opposed to pâté, not only because it comes from a part of the body that is clearly not meant to be eaten, but also because of the inhumanity of force-feeding animals in order to produce it).

My second experience with room service, here in Edinburgh, was much more pleasant (although even more expensive, thanks to the exchange rate). Given the state of my stomach, there were really only two things in the world I could imagine eating, and the room service menu had them both—what luck! The first was a fruit salad with cantaloupe and berries; this really was worth whatever I paid, because the fruit tasted as though it had been freshly picked in a garden out back. The second was chicken/vegetable broth with a few noodles, served with a side of plain toast. As miserable as I was, I could still get a bit of enjoyment out of the luxury of perching on a down comforter, wearing a giant bathrobe, eating food that had been wheeled to my room on a cart:

(I particularly liked the flower in the little glass bowl--classy! And, yes, that is real silver.)

My sick day gave me time to do three major things. First, explore the room a bit more. Not to harp on about the quality of the facilities, but I noticed several more aspects of our room that make me question this whole five-star business. In the bathroom, there is a water stain on the ceiling above the sink, mildew in the grout of the bathtub, a yellow discoloration around the base of the toilet, and cracks in some of the tiles on the floor:

(Exhibit A: Water stains above the (expansive) bathroom sink.)

In the bedroom, there are several red stains on the carpet:

(Exhibit B: Mysterious stains. These were clearly footprint stains; what on earth do you track in that is the color of sweet and sour sauce?)

Now, I am not saying that any of these things really detracts from my enjoyment of my stay here—I can find stains, mildew, discolorations, and cracks in various places in my own apartment, and I like it there just fine. However, I can’t help but think that if I’d wanted stains and cracks, I could have stayed at any hotel; don’t you expect a bit more out of a place with so many stars? Something else that bothers me is the pretentiousness associated with places like these. For instance, do I really need my bedside lamp to have a (faux) leather-covered post? Do I really want to look at myself in a (faux) gold-framed mirror? What is up with these bizarre light fixtures?:

(These look a little more ridiculous in person, but trust me, they are unnecessarily weird. However, if someone were to break into my room, I'm confident I could grab one of these fixtures off the wall and defend myself quite successfully.)

More importantly, could I honestly live with myself if I ordered a £20 “bath ritual” from the menu in the bathroom (to translate: bubble bath, shower gels, body oils), or a “revitiliser” (wine, champagne, chocolate, canapés) for as much as £85? It’s not that I don’t like indulging every now and then, I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with the scale of the excess, which to me seems unnecessary and thoughtless. After all, we are in a country where it was just announced that the retirement age is going to be raised to 66, and then eventually 70, in order to allow the government to pay for rising pension costs. Kind of puts things into perspective.

But before I get too harsh, I will commend the hotel on the complimentary toiletries in the room, which were quite plush, and the people at the front desk who agreed to let us have a later-than-normal check-out time so that I could maximize the amount of recovery I got before attempting to rejoin the real world. Additionally, while I was holed up in the room all day, housekeeping came and left two notes in response to our “Do not disturb” sign on the door. Because they were not able to “refresh” the room either in the morning or during the evening turn-down time, they gave us a number to call to arrange an alternative, if we wanted to. They were extremely helpful and accommodating, but without being obsequious or fawning--not an easy line to walk.

The second thing I did all day was read, to the point of finishing my current book. I am in the middle of reading everything written by Bill Bryson. After I first moved to the UK, I discovered my husband’s copy of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, which I have always wanted to read, and I made my way through that quite quickly. Recently, I thought it might be nice to read Bryson’s thoughts on England, so I purchased Notes From a Small Island. When I was in the book store, I also picked up Down Under, since we are about to go to Australia ourselves, and I thought that Bryson might have some helpful pointers (indeed, I read about two places that I want to go while we are in Perth). I tend to be rather loyal, so after finishing that book I hatched my plan to read my way through the rest of Bryson’s works (luckily I’ve already read two or three, so I won’t be entirely overwhelmed). For the Edinburgh trip, I brought Notes From a Big Country, which is a series of newspaper articles that Bryson wrote for a British publication after returning to live in the USA with his family. One of the reasons that I like Bill Bryson’s work, besides the fact that it is informative and funny, is that we have some things in common and I like to compare my perspective with his. Do we notice the same differences between the British and American cultures? Do we miss the same things when we’re in one country or the other? Do the same things frustrate us? It is nice to find a kindred spirit who sometimes validates you, and other times opens your eyes to new things. I just wish I’d packed my next book, Neither Here Nor There, which I never dreamed I’d get to so soon. Luckily, the hotel left a little light reading in our room:

(Come to think of it, perhaps this was more anti-attacker defense. Should I fail to impale him on the light fixture, I could smack him over the head with this brick, or possibly bore him to death by reading a few pages out loud. No offense to the Queen, but I read a comprehensive biography of the first Elizabeth and it was only about half as long despite the fact that she changed the course of English history on a much larger scale. I'm just saying.)

Luckily, I had the third thing on my list, which is World Cup soccer (aka “football” or “footie”). Boy, do I love soccer. I first started playing soccer when, as a sophomore in high school, I rashly signed up for indoor soccer even though I knew absolutely nothing about the sport. To be honest, I still have no idea why I did that, but I’m glad I did. I have never been all that great at the sport—I don’t disgrace myself, but it certainly would be useful if I were better at the ball-handling portion, as opposed to just the running portion of the game—but I do love to watch it. In the US, this is not something you can do all that much unless you purchase special sports packages for your television, or go to bars. I didn’t even have regular cable half the time, and I certainly never went to bars, so I rarely watched soccer in the US. My husband, on the other hand, is a huge sports fan, and so we have a wealth of soccer games to choose from (along with rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis…but this is beside the point). He’s a Liverpool fan, and so I have also become a Liverpool fan by default:

(The Liverpool crest. How can you not like a team whose fans sing excerpts of a Pink Floyd song at games?)

They are a good team to support because they’re talented enough to win a good portion of their games, thus leaving you feeling triumphant, but not so good that people might think you support them just because they’re likely to win the championship. Also, their team colors are white and red, the color of the jerseys for my first soccer team, so I’ll take that as a sign that I was born to support Liverpool.

Another reason why I like Liverpool is their captain, Steven Gerrard. He is so…earnest. He is not one of those rock star athletes that drives an Escalade and wears a big gold chain and gets caught with prostitutes and drugs. Gerrard really does seem as though he cares, about his teammates and the game. He’s just a nice guy. I hate seeing him give press conferences after a mistake has been made on the field, because he looks like he’s in great pain, and possibly as though he might go have a cry afterward:

(Steven Gerrard. See that pained expression on his face? He's probably feeling guilty for a mistake he hasn't even made yet. What a sensitive guy.)

Despite my adoration of Gerrard, my favourite player is Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United. I am not alone in this, since probably half the country follows Manchester United, and since Rooney is considered maybe the best current player in English football. I don’t really care about statistics, though. I like Rooney because he looks and moves just like someone I once dated in college, and he even kind of acts like him, too. I find the resemblance so remarkable that I feel compelled to be a loyal fan:

(Exhibit A: Wayne Rooney, striker for Manchester United.)

(Exhibit B: Dr. Matt Rivenburgh, former sprinter on the Haverford College track team, my ex-boyfriend. I have pictures that better portray the similarity between Matt and Wayne, but unfortunately they are sitting with the rest of my shipment on a dock in Felixstowe, which, as we all know, is another story.)

Rooney is often described as a thug, which is probably fair enough, but he also truly cares about the game, and obviously feels the pressure of the millions of fans whose expectations he must live up to each week. Another sensitive guy.

All of this brings us back to the World Cup. In the Premier League, Rooney and Gerrard are on different teams that battle each other for the championship. But in the World Cup, they’re on the same team, along with other incredible players who suddenly go from being competitors to partners. It’s a crazy dynamic; what’s even crazier is how good they are despite the fact that they spend most of their year playing against each other rather than with each other. England won the World Cup in 1966 and haven’t since; to say there is tremendous pressure to right this wrong is to indulge in serious understatement. The World Cup build-up began once the Premier League games ended in early May. Since then, there have been steadily more World Cup-oriented commercials and TV specials and songs—yes, World Cup-themed songs, played on the radio. People have hung English flags from the windows of their apartments and businesses, they have attached flags and magnets and stickers to their cars, they have started wearing English jerseys on an everyday basis. Just to be clear, I did mean to say English flag, rather than British flag. It looks like this:

(The English flag. It doesn't actually have "England" written across the middle, but most of the footie-related flags do, for some reason. This is different from the Union Jack, although you can see how this design was incorporated into the British flag.)

Stores here are selling English flag jewelry, decorative lights (as in, soccer-ball shaped Christmas tree lights with English flags on them), mugs, place mats…you name it, you can buy it somewhere right now. This is a big deal. This is such a big deal that the World Cup is getting more press than Wimbledon, even on days when the English team have no games.

My sickness corresponded with the last group stage qualifying game for England—their make-or-break game against Slovenia, after their draws against the USA and Algeria. I felt confident that England would win, but other people weren’t so sure, so it was a very tense and exciting atmosphere. Needless to say, this would have been quite the match to have seen in a pub, surrounded by other soccer fans. However, given my state, I was quite happy to see it in my hotel room. I was so excited by Jermain Defoe’s (game-defining) goal that I jumped up and shouted before remembering that I was sick. I was also pleased to hear that the US managed a late-game goal against Algeria and that they, too, made it through to the knock-out round—if my adopted country can’t win, I might as well support my home country. These were just the afternoon games, of course; there were two more in the evening, and I watched these as well, sending text message updates to my husband, who was attending yet another banquet.

I have definitely had more exciting, and more comfortable, vacation days, but one can never complain too much about the chance to eat a meal in bed, watch four exciting footie games on television, finish a book, and play computer games, all in one day. Compared to what I would be doing if I were at home--editing, editing, editing--this is an improvement. All the same, I have my fingers crossed that I will be able to enjoy Edinburgh a bit more thoroughly on my final day...

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 1: Hello, Old Friend

Last week, if you'd have asked me what my favorite city was, I'd have told you there was a tie between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Edinburgh, Scotland. But today I'm in Edinburgh, for the first time in five years and for only the second time ever, and if you asked me that same question now, I'd have to vote in favor of the Scottish city.

I showed up in Edinburgh feeling tired and cranky, but by the end of the day I was in high spirits. Thanks, Edinburgh. I was feeling so irritable because my husband and I had spent the previous night in the motel at the Exeter Services, 10 minutes from the Exeter airport, from which we were due to depart at 6:50 AM. We did this to spare ourselves getting up at 3:30 AM prior to the flight, as we had done for our Germany trip. While it was nice to have a bit of a lie-in (5 AM--how decadent!), the motel itself was pretty dire, and to say that I "slept" would be quite a generous overstatement. The bed had a dent in the middle, towards which I kept rolling all night, and the blankets were made of something synthetic that loudly went "swish swish" every time one of us even thought of moving. I awoke feeling more tired than I had been at bedtime.

Nevertheless, we made it to Edinburgh without incident. On the bus from the airport to the city center, we sat several rows away from an American student (from my recent home state of Virginia, no less) who sounded as though she had come over a few months early before starting her study abroad. I cannot help but be sensitive to the actions of other Americans I encounter here in the UK. I try not to be judgmental, but American tourists who come over for a couple of weeks and behave rudely or insensitively or just awkwardly can really make my life miserable. They go home none the wiser; I am left here to deal with the Brits who have had annoying run-ins with these people, and therefore think that all Americans are obnoxious and deserve punishment. This girl was sitting at the opposite end of the bus from us, but was speaking so loudly and shrilly that we could hear everything she said--about life in the US, about saying goodbye to her mom at the airport, about upcoming class projects, about the city around her, etc. *sigh* The one interesting bit of all this was, despite the relative innocuousness of her accent, it was really noticeable to me after all this time in England. It has made me wonder what it is going to feel like to be surrounded by those accents when I visit home over the holidays--will they sound weird? Will *I* sound weird? Anyway, we also sat behind some Americans during the bus trip, in this case a middle-aged couple who were obviously well-off and behaved in a pretty low-key manner. *whew* I found myself a bit fascinated by the things they photographed--through the bus window--as we drove through the city. For instance, they snapped a picture of an auto-body shop that contained several high-end and/or antique cars; they snapped another photo of...a cafe? The street corner? I have no idea. I guess things look more different and noteworthy when you have never been to a place before, and/or are not used to it. Needless to say, I was quite happy to finally get off that bus.

Unfortunately, by the time we did, it was just past breakfast time, but we'd still had no breakfast. Keep in mind that we had been awake since 5 AM, and you can imagine how hungry I was. There had been nothing at the airport, and now my only option was a McDonald's. Generally, I can be very laid back about things most of the time, except when I am a) really tired, and b) really hungry, and here I was both of these things simultaneously. Things were not shaping up well. But, thanks to my trusty iPhone, we located an Upper Crust, my favorite British chain. Upper Crust is a bakery/cafe/deli that you find especially in train stations, and they sell freshly-made baguettes all day. The last time I came to the UK, I more or less lived on Upper Crust baguette sandwiches (bacon and cheese or ham and cheese) because they were tasty and within my limited budget. Once I had replenished my energy with a little baguette, things started looking up.

We couldn't check in to our hotel until after midday, so we dropped off the suitcase and went off to wander the city. I was amazed by how much I remembered from my first visit here. We traipsed up to the castle in order to look out over the city, then wandered down to the national museums. Along the way, I was amazed at how many foreign accents we encountered. Edinburgh is positively swarming with American tourists this time of year (including yet another family from, judging by the Virginia Tech gear, Virginia), but there was quite a lot of variety--Indians, Scandinavians, Italians, Germans, was quite a happening place up there on the Mile.

On the way to the museum, we stopped by the statue of Greyfriars Bobby:

(Me and Greyfriars Bobby--I even love animals that are made of metal.)

Now, there are two interesting stories to be told about Greyfriars Bobby. The first is the original. Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier belonging to John Gray. John died in 1858, leaving little Bobby behind. So devoted was this little dog that he sat and guarded the grave of his master, at Greyfriars Kirkyard (hence the name "Greyfriars Bobby") for 14 years until he died in 1872. Or so the story goes; even though this sounds very Disneyfied (and there are, in fact, two movies made about this, including one as recently as 2006), there are quite a few documented details that indicate this probably did really happen. Regardless of the exact facts, this tale captured public sentiment quite effectively, and Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned this monument to be erected at the end of the George IV Bridge.

The second interesting story involves me. The first time that I visited Edinburgh, in 2005, I arrived via train after a 7-hour train ride. Not surprisingly, I was eager to stretch my legs, and so I went out for a walk after checking in to my hostel. It was about 5 PM and already growing dusky, but I had a good map and I was told it was safe, and I had to go get dinner anyway, so I headed out. I knew that Greyfriars Bobby was near my hostel and easy to find, so I thought I might check that little task off my list before picking up some food. Well, you probably can already see where this story is going. In the gloom, I managed to walk right by the dark statue, and instead found myself poking around Greyfriars Kirkyard, thinking that the statue would be nearby. At some point, people began showing up to the adjoining church for some sort of evening service, and it occurred to me that I maybe looked a little odd poking around a cemetery in the dark. Feeling unsatisfied and irritated, I left after a good 45 minutes of searching around, and headed back towards the main street. You can imagine my surprise when, in the glow of street lamps and headlights, I saw the dog statue, clear as day, right along the sidewalk where I had passed many minutes earlier. Luckily, it was much easier for us to find this second time around, though not at all easy for me to convince my husband to take a photograph of me, in broad daylight, along a major street.

Actually, this attitude deserves a bit of an aside. My husband really hates seeming touristy, which I can sympathize with; I, also, prefer to blend in, and I especially hate whipping out my camera in public, because it's just so trite and embarrassing. However, if you're interested in seeing cultural things, and documenting it for yourself or others, you just have to get over these things. Normally, my husband is willing to sigh and grumble and do what I want, but he was feeling a bit edgy about being in Edinburgh, because he tends to have bad luck here. The first, and only other time, he was here, he and his then-girlfriend, Katie, were attacked, for absolutely no reason, by a couple of hooligans. They were just stopping by the ATM (or "cash point," if you prefer), when some sketchy-looking people made a beeline their way. After quickly sizing up the situation, my husband handed his glasses to his girlfriend and told her to call the cops. He subdued the male attacker, pinning him down and sitting on him until the police could arrive to do the rest. Unexpectedly, the attacker's girlfriend walked up to Katie and head-butted her in the face. Naturally, Katie and my husband did not feel very welcome in this city. I was willing to shrug all this off as an unfortunate one-time occurrence, until, on our way across the bridge to visit little Greyfriars Bobby, a large Scottish man actively tried to provoke a fight with my husband for absolutely no reason other than we happened to be walking down the same sidewalk, in broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon. I would like to think that I was looking particularly beautiful and desirable, and that it was a fight over me, but I think it's more likely that my husband looks English or, more generally, foreign, and our would-be pugilist was not a fan of outsiders. Oh, well--you can't win everyone over.

We sought refuge (well, not really--we were going there anyway) in the National Museums Scotland. These are quite amazing facilities, and much can be learned here. I had gone through the history portion previously, and I was hoping to revisit some of the fascinating Pictish artifacts that so captured my interest last time I was there. Unfortunately, there was a very large school group wandering around making the sort of high-pitched shrieks that only small children can make and only bats and dogs can hear, so we headed up to the third floor to see the special visiting exhibition, "Lewis Chessmen Unmasked." The Lewis Chessmen are a bunch of--you guessed it--chess pieces:
(Some of the 30-odd Lewis Chessmen on display at the museum. There are actually 78 total, and they are carved from walrus ivory.)

They were originally found on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides) in the mid-19th century, but were originally made in Scandinavia in the late 12th or early 13th century. There is still some uncertainty as to how, exactly, they got to Scotland, why they were hoarded so carefully, and whether they are part of a larger, as-yet-undiscovered, cache of Viking goodies in the vicinity. They are quite nifty little piece of handiwork, and definitely worth seeing in person in order to examine the unique expressions on each character's face. It was all I could do to keep myself from purchasing a replica to sit next to my Buddha collection, but I am already sick of having to dust around my many copies of the Enlightened One, and I don't need one more butt to lift off the shelf.

What I did want, however, was a copy of the Viking game called "hnefatafl," which my husband and I learned about for the first time after discovering a little setup in the museum explaining the rules of chess and chess-like games:

(Hnefatafl. In case you are curious, it's pronounced "Nhev-eh-TAH-full.")

I had read about this game before in a pair of novels about the Viking invasion of the Scottish Isles, but it was called an alternative version of the name, "King's Table." It seemed quite interesting, and I have been trying to track down a version to play. Unfortunately, the museum was out, and the Internet is not very forthcoming. Physical boards seem quite difficult to come by, but there do appear to be some fanatics who have set up online versions of the game. I believe I will try it and see if I am any less awful at hnefatafl that I am at its cousins, chess, checkers, and backgammon. Given my track record, I'd say that's unlikely, but hope springs eternal.

While viewing the exhibit, we received a phone call from the hotel saying that we could come check in and, at last, have a nap (the receptionist only suggested the first part--the second was our idea). At this point I should probably mention that we are staying at the Balmoral Hotel, a "five-star property" (what does that really mean?) right in the middle of town, on Princes Street:
(Balmoral Hotel and Day Spa. I believe this is the first hotel I've stayed in that has a doorman, and certainly the first hotel with a doorman dressed in a kilt.)

We are not paying for this ourselves, of course. Rather, my husband is an invited guest to a conference on human behavior, and the conference sponsors are paying for his entire trip. Incidentally, the conference sponsors are one of the branches of the US military, so in case you were wondering where your tax dollars go, now you know. The hotel has one of the highest-ranked "urban day-spas" (again, what is with all the qualifiers in these descriptions?) in the UK, and, in fact, in Europe, though of course that costs extra and as much as I would like to go enjoy a back rub and facial and scalp massage, I have better ways to spend $130. Our room is fairly nice--my husband thinks it's nicer than the room we had at the 4-star Budock Vean resort, where we went for our "honeymoon" (really just an overnight trip). The funny thing is, though, I am never all that impressed by these supposedly world-class places, because I think they seem a little fake. Also, there are, in fact, truly fake things in our room, which, in a "five-star property," I would expect to be real--the "leather" headboard and bedskirt (vinyl!), the matching "leather" chair (still vinyl!), the "marble" tiling in the bathroom (regular tiling with a marble pattern!). Also, our television, while wide-screen, is not exceptionally big, is not a flat-screen, and is certainly not HD. This is actually quite unfortunate, since we are in the middle of the World Cup and have already watched two games here in our room. We have an extensive mini-bar but no coffee/tea-making facilities, which even our crummy motel in Exeter had. However, we are in an excellent location, and have this marvelous view of the hotel's clock tower right outside our window:

(The Balmoral clock tower. Notice the time, and the brightness of the sky. You might be surprised to know that it is 9:30 PM, not AM--one of the benefits of living far north during the summer months.)

Also, housekeeping knocked on our door last night at 8 PM to offer turn-down service, which was a little embarrassing because I had to answer the door while wearing the hotel's complimentary bathrobe (several times too large for me). When I said "no" to the service, I was asked whether I needed anything else, such as towels or water. The funny thing about "water" was that she wasn't asking about topping up my mini bar, but running me a bath. Who are the people who normally stay in this hotel, and are they really so incompetent and/or spoiled that they need someone to fold back their sheets and pour their bath water? Goodness. In any case, regardless of what our room may or may not be lacking, it offered a bed with four fluffy pillows and an even fluffier duvet, and I cannot tell you how nice it was to take a nap after our early morning. It was like sleeping in clouds--or, at least, I think it was, but I was out before my head hit the pillow, so I could be wrong.

After waking, watching some World Cup, and having a nice shower (this place does have good shower pressure, unlike most of the rest of Britain), I headed out for a walk. My husband had to go attend the meet-and-greet portion of the conference, but I wanted to reacquaint myself with Edinburgh. I walked down the Royal Mile (in the other direction this time), and eventually came to the Palace of Holyrood. This was the residence of Mary, Queen of Scots, but is now used for various functions by Queen Elizabeth II. I had already seen and photographed it during my previous trip, but the evening sun was striking in quite a lovely way, so I had to stop and take this picture:

(Doorway to the Queen's Gallery at the Palace of Holyrood. If that's what's on the outside, think about what it must look like inside! Actually, right now there is an exhibition of Dutch landscapes, which I think is probably a bit less flashy than this.)

That's a rampant unicorn on the left, and a rampant lion on the right. Quite striking, but not as striking as the sight of Arthur's Seat just around the corner:

(Cliffs in front of Arthur's Seat. I admit I poached this picture because mine incorporated the car park, which makes for a slightly less striking image.)

When I was in Edinburgh before, I was on "Spring Break," but actually it was intensely cold and mostly cloudy, rainy, and/or windy. I spent my entire train trip there crocheting a scarf and hat to keep me warm while wandering through the city. There was snow on all the mountains in the distance, and climbing around in the Arthur's Seat area was absolutely not an option, regardless of how wonderful my newly-completed cold weather wear was. However, this time around, it was in the low- to mid-70's, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and it was the perfect opportunity to enjoy Holyrood Park, Arthur's Seat, and the Salisbury Crags. I took many pictures, but I think the place was just too beautiful to imagine unless you were there. Nevertheless:

(A lovely glade with a seasonal pool, above which the martins and swallows were swooping and diving.)

(Another view of the glade. There were hikers going up to the very top, and a couple were standing up there in very victorious poses. The peak is not that high, but the paths are very, very steep.)

(The peak of this section of Arthur's Cliffs; there is another, possibly higher, peak behind me. Its paths are a little more switchback in nature, making it look slightly less painful to climb. There were actually some maniacs who were running up to the top. Even in my medal-winning track & field days, I would not have thought of such a thing.)

After traipsing about a bit more, I headed back to the hotel, stopping along the way to have dinner. In this enormous city full of new restaurants to explore, where do you think I ate? Pizza Express, which has a franchise right across the square from my flat in Falmouth, and where I just ate last week. I'll try to be more exciting next time--I just happened to be in the mood for a quick salad, and Pizza Express was right there (my husband, on the other hand, actually tried some haggis at the conference banquet, so he made up for my lack of inventiveness).

The day ended with some more World Cup (I am beginning to wonder what I will do with my time when the World Cup is over), and then a return to the duvet cloud for some more rest. Who knows what the next day will bring...

Saturday, 12 June 2010


Imagine for a moment that you are a person who really, really loves pets, but can't have one because your landlord won't let you, and that you are forced to look at this face multiple times every day:

(West Highland White Terrier)

Did you just have a cute overload? This little fellow was the tenth most popular dog in Britain in 2009. According to Kennel Club registration numbers, nearly 6,000 Brits own a Westie, which I have long thought to have some of the most unbearably darling mannerisms of any breed. Apparently all of these Westie owners congregate in Falmouth, because I see more of these perky-tailed terriers trotting down the street than pretty much any other breed. They were originally "developed," to use an impersonal (but accurate) word, in Scotland, to dig out foxes and badgers. While I was living in Chapel Hill, NC, I pet-sat for a Westie named Cooper (full name: Cooper Pruitt--seriously, can you get any cuter?). Although most dogs seem to like me pretty well, probably because I am the biggest sap ever and will let them get away with just about anything, Cooper was unreasonably fond of me, and I had many pleasant evening jaunts in his company. One of my biggest regrets in leaving Chapel Hill was that I did not kidnap Cooper and take him with me, and seeing his British doppelgangers everywhere is always a bit poignant.

A close cousin of the Westie is this guy:

(Jack Russell Terrier)

If you watched American television in the 1990's, your first thought was probably "Eddie!" and you would be right--this, like the adorable pet in Frasier, is a Jack Russell Terrier. Lots of dogs are mistaken for Jack Russells, because there are very similar breeds that not only look the same but also have similar names (e.g., Russell Terriers, Parson Russell Terriers, etc.), and many of them have probably interbred. Like Westies, these were bred for fox hunting. Remarkably, these do not even make the top 20 list of the most popular British dog breeds, which I find unfathomable because I see them everywhere. When I say everywhere, I am being pretty literal, since you sometimes walk into a pub and see someone with a Jack Russell, or hop on a bus and find a Jack Russell sitting at someone's feet (Does a dog need a ticket to ride a bus?). Once, when my husband and I spent a night at a fancy-schmancy spa, there was a distinguished old gentleman in the lobby, accompanied by his Jack Russell in the four-star hotel--overnight! Oddly, more than any other dog breed, people love to let Jacks off their leashes, and the dogs don't run away. I can't tell you how many times I've watched untethered Jack Russells trotting earnestly behind their masters, barely even taking the time to stop and smell other dogs' marks on the wall, or eat bits of food on the sidewalk, or any of the other things that dogs normally do. It is unnatural.

There are three other terrier breeds that I see quite commonly: the border terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the (regular) bull terrier. I had never actually seen a border terrier in real life until I moved to Britain. They are quite an odd breed--sometimes they are really cute, and other times they are really not. Mostly, they look kind of like the canine version of a crotchety old sailor, or a wind-weathered farmer from the highlands:

(Border terrier)

A lot of their cuteness is determined by the little beard (which, actually, is a shock of fur that goes full-circle around the muzzle and even sticks up on top)--how long it is, and how scraggly--and also by their eyes. For some reason this breed often has off-kilter eyes, with one just a bit higher or more googly than the other. If this little face looks familiar to you, you may be remembering Baxter in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. These guys are seventh on the list of most-popular dogs, which doesn't surprise me given that I always see them being walked in pairs around town. Evidently they get lonely easily.

Staffordshire bull terriers are one slot above them on the list, and these are another distinctly British dog. In the US, you are more likely to run into pit bulls, which, unfortunately, have quite a bad reputation despite actually being quite intelligent, loyal, and sweet dogs, provided they aren't trained (or given a willful lack of training) by ignorant, violent morons. Staffordshires are a bit shorter and more squat, but do give the same general impression of being capable of lethality when/if necessary:

(Staffordshire bull terrier)

As you might guess given its formidable physique, this breed was originally developed to bait bulls, a truly appalling and thankfully extinct form of recreation. As with border terriers, Staffordshires always seem to come in pairs or even trios. I get the impression that they are not the most intelligent of dogs, as they seem quite happy to mindlessly idle in front of shops while waiting for their owners to return and resume the walk. They just sit there looking blandly about, without a care in the world. They do seem to be quite sensitive and calm animals (although some of them, particularly the darkest ones, can look quite demonic, with those pointy ears and overly-muscled chests). It's good that these generally seem well-behaved, considering their strength and power--I would not want to have two of these guys yanking at the end of a leash and dragging me on a wild chase after every squirrel, gull, Yorkie, or small child in sight.

The last terrier I will dwell on is the bull terrier, which has long been one of my favorite breeds of dog. I have always wanted one, and given that these are the 19th most popular breed in the country, there is a good chance that I could own one if spend many more years here:

(Bull terrier)

This is a (regular) bull terrier, famous as Spudz MacKenzie from the Budweiser ads, as Bill's canine companion in Oliver!, and, most recently, as the Target dog. Pound-for-pound, bull terriers are said to have more muscle than any other dog breed, and I can believe it. I pet-sat for a bull terrier named Wombat, who has to be one of the most massive dogs I have ever encountered. She is a bit old and rickety, and not inclined to rouse herself for long walks, so I was compelled to lift her off the sofa myself in order to coax her out the door. My back was sore for two days after that endeavor, and I got a good bicep workout, also, when I tried to convince her to keep walking forward after she'd decided she'd had enough exercise and wanted to go back home. There is no arguing with a dog that strong. It is no wonder they are called the "gladiators of the canine race."

As you'll have noticed by now, there are an inordinate number of terriers in this country. That is because most terriers originated in either the UK or Ireland, and have been popular here for centuries. There is huge variety in the terrier family, which includes five groups, each of which contains multiple different breeds. Some can be tucked into carry-on bags and practically worn as accessories, while the largest, the Airedale, can be taller than a retriever. Although most terriers no longer have to earn their keep, they were originally developed to hunt vermin (hence the incessant and sometimes compulsive digging of our dog Laddie, a Scottish terrier) or engage in animal-animal combat.

In general, favorite dog breeds in Britain generally tend to be related to some outdoor pursuit, and some of them do actually still work in that capacity. This includes, for instance, the classic hunting companion, the spaniel. There are no fewer than three spaniels in the top ten list: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (#5), English Springer Spaniel (#3), and Cocker Spaniel (#2). Cumulatively, these breeds account for over 40,000 registered dogs.

I have always been a bit bothered by spaniels, and not really in love with them despite my generally accepting nature of all dog breeds (except the little rat-like lap dogs, which really shouldn't be allowed to be classified as canines, in my opinion). Yes, they have quite silky coats, train well, and are very good family dogs. But their eyes are all pop-out-y, and some of them have such runny eyes that you have to wipe at them all the time just to keep them clean. A few of the breeds also have snub, boxy noses, similar to bulldogs but not quite as atrocious. Take, for instance, the Cavalier:

(Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

Look at those long, scraggly ears. He can't even perk them all the way up--what kind of dog is this? Also, what a pompous name. On the other hand, take a look at this cocker spaniel:

(Cocker Spaniel)

Now, obviously, that was a bit of a cheap trick, because this is a puppy and all puppies are cute, but, come on, can you blame me? I want to adopt this dog right now. In any case, there are two types of Cocker Spaniel, an American variety and a British variety. The British one is much more attractive than the American one (a reversal of the usual pattern, ha ha). In case you are wondering where that ridiculous name comes from, it is because they were often used to hunt woodcock. Since we're talking about ridiculous things, I might as well show you what that looks like:

(American woodcock; the British version looks quite similar. Stupendous bill, wouldn't you say? I once stumbled across one of these in the woods and it was so terrified that it flushed straight up into a tree limb and knocked itself out cold for a good 30 seconds. Who needs a rifle when you can just hunt using the scenery?)

Anyway, if I were going to participate in the spaniel trend, I would have to go for the English Springer Spaniel, a truly beautiful dog, and one that I do not see all that often down here in Falmouth:
(English Springer Spaniel)

When we recently traveled to the Isles of Scilly, we took a nauseating boat ride out to see puffins and razorbills and other assorted wonderful birds that hang around on inaccessible bits of rock jutting out of the freezing, choppy waves. Our skipper had what I believe was an English Springer Spaniel (or, at least a mixed breed that was heavily endowed with Springer Spaniel blood), and I could not believe how well-behaved and well-acclimated it was. As we were all boarding the boat at the dock, she waited on the steps and hopped on last, took a quick spin around the deck to make sure all was in order (avoiding all attempted petting because she was busy attending to business), then went into the cabin and jumped into the skipper's chair, where she remained happily curled up for the remainder of our vomit-inducing journey. I had no idea a dog could have sea legs, but she had four of them.

As I intimated above, all of the dogs I'm mentioning here are (or were, when they were first developed) useful not just as companions, but also in getting rid of rats and otters and foxes and various other beleaguered wildlife. You might also notice something else they have in common--they are relatively compact animals. Even the largest, the English Springer Spaniel, is not a giant by canine standards. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons these breeds are so popular is that they are easy to fit inside a flat. This is important because approximately 80% of Brits live in an urban area, and urban areas account for nearly a tenth of all space in this country. Even in cities, many people have small, narrow gardens out back. These are quite nice if you own a larger breed that needs a bit more romping space than can often be found inside the typical British residence.

The final three dogs that round out the top ten list fall in this "larger dog" category. One is the boxer (#9) and the other two are retrievers (Golden, at #8, and Labrador, at #1). I probably see two or three of these every day, but not nearly as often as I see the littler dogs, especially terriers. That probably has something to do with the fact that I spend most of my time in the middle of the city, where people need flat-friendly breeds, and also where people with larger dogs are less likely to go for a walk, when instead they could head somewhere more spacious (e.g., the beach). Interestingly, the Labrador retriever is not only the current most popular dog in the UK, but also in the US and, in fact the world. I guess that means an image is warranted:

(Black Labrador Retriever)

You may be thinking, That's all very well and good, but who cares, other than animal-crazy Caitlin? Well, as it turns out, the British care. British people are absolutely insane about their pets. Where I lived in Williamsburg, we had three pet stores and a fourth on the way at the time of my departure. I worked for one of at least four petsitters in town, earning as much as nearly $1000 a week during the busiest times of the year. I pet-sat for people who cooked their own dog food, for people who insisted on giving their dogs only healthy "treats" such as carrots, for AKC championship winners, for dogs with more toys than I ever had when I was a kid...I could go on and on with crazy pet stories. The point is, it is hard to live in a country like the US, with endless animal-product commercials and animal charities and celebrities with high-profile animal companions, and imagine that there could be a place where people could be even more insane over their pets. But then I moved to Britain.

According to some possibly-spurious internet statistics, nearly half of all UK households have a single pet, and most have more--7.2 million total dogs, 7.3 million total cats. In a single evening of television watching, you can see adverts for pet insurance policies (as in, their health and safety and their vet bills), home-for-life plans (insurance guaranteeing that, if you die, your animal will be provided with a safe, loving home), pet supplies, and any number of pet charities, including the RSPCA and other rescuers, animal health groups, and animal welfare groups. As I already mentioned, you can take pets practically anywhere--inside most shops, inside many cafes, on public transport (even the ferry to the Isles of Scilly, which is a 3-hour journey). Look down the sidewalk, and you will see a row of water dishes outside cafes so that dogs can refresh themselves while their owners shop. You will likely also see at least one or two dogs tied to posts or thoughtfully-provided leash rings, waiting patiently for Mom or Dad to come back. Unfortunately, you may also see a few piles of dog poo, but for the most part you don't, because the authorities provide special trash cans--especially common along major walking routes--for tossing out poo that you've scooped. It's all very civilized and wonderful, this total integration of animals.

You may noticed that I just said "animals" after focusing mainly on dogs. That's only because most of my experience is with dogs, but there are many others, as well. I often pass house cats, but they are mostly very uninterested in my affection. They are quite street-savvy, these British cats; they look both ways before crossing the road, they stay away from strangers. There are also loads of chickens, though mostly in backyard coops, such that you do not see them often. We have friends who keep chickens, and it is quite lovely to get batches of fresh eggs from them. I believe that rabbits are quite common, also, though for the life of me I can't figure out why--they never really seem to do much except twitch their noses and scamper into the back corner of the hutch when people get too close, but maybe I've just interacted with the wrong animals. Flocks of pigeons wheel around above the city, and at least some of them are homing pigeons that someone releases each morning and shuts back up each evening. Then, of course, there are the "working" domestic animals that dot the landscape--horses, the occasional mule or donkey, cows, a seemingly infinite supply of picturesque sheep.

In any case, I think you can tell a lot about people by watching their interactions with animals (I always said I'd never keep a boyfriend that Laddie didn't approve of). If that is the case, then the Brits can be said to be quite a caring, generous, and thoughtful people. Now if only I could find more of them who are in need of a petsitter...